This unusual story started in 2012 when I received a request for information about 95th Bomb Group pilot 1st Lt James Douglass Sasser. The request came from Elizabeth Aal, a relative whose interest had been aroused when her mother passed away. The story of this young flier’s life came to light with letters, newspaper cuttings, photos and, most precious of all, a diary which contained a day-by-day account from when 1st Lt Sasser left America in April 1944 up until the day before his tragic accident at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, on 19th July 1944.
After some early research Elizabeth told me why she wished to find out more about 1st Lt Sasser’s time at Station 119, Horham, Suffolk and the aircraft he flew (B-17G-60-BO, 42–102937 named “Ready Freddie”), plus how the tragedy unfolded. In Elizabeth’s own words:
“The story of “Ready Freddie” has had a long secretive history for my mother during her life as it did for most of mine. The mystery begins with learning that my mother’s first husband was killed in WW2 in a plane he named after her. Official government letters and documents found stated he was killed in an airplane accident on a practice mission in England.”
Seventy years later, the internet gave me access to long forgotten records of the accident and its true nature. This research is intended to be a memorial and tribute to the 14 brave young airmen who lost their lives and to the families who were spared the grim truth at the time.
|1st May||Sarreguemines, France||42–38054||Holy Matrimony|
|8th May||Berlin, Germany||42–31887||Big Casino|
|11th May||Liege, Belgium||42–97376||Aunt Callie’s Baby|
|12th May||Brux, Belgium||42–97376||Aunt Callie’s Baby|
|13th May||Osnabruk, Germany||42–97376||Aunt Callie’s Baby|
|19th May||Berlin, Germany||42–97376||Aunt Callie’s Baby|
|25th May||Brussels, Belgium||42–97376||Aunt Callie’s Baby|
|29th May||Leipzig, Germany||42–97376||Aunt Callie’s Baby|
|2nd June||Boulogne, France||42–97858||Carmen’s Folly|
|4th June||Boulogne, France||42–97858||Carmen’s Folly|
|6th June||Tactical Mission (D-Day)||42–97858||Carmen’s Folly|
|6th June||Tactical Mission (D-Day)||42–107204||Stand By|
|8th June||Tactical Mission||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
|11th June||Tactical Mission||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
|12th June||Tactical Mission||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
|14th June||Chievres (Le Culot), France||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
|20th June||Fallersleben, Germany||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
|21st June||Ruhland, Germany||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
|24th June||Tactical Mission||42–102951||–|
|11th July||Munich, Germany||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
|17th July||Stuttgart, Germany||42–102937||Ready Freddie|
On 19th July the crew were scheduled for a training mission over Holbrook Bay on the River Stour in Suffolk on board Ready Freddie were: (Pilot) James Sasser; (CP) Victor Mintz; (RO) James Heil Sr; (TT) Francis Bradburn; (N) John Morton; and (B) Floyd Hendershot.
The other four members of the crew stood down, staying at Horham. After the training flight and heading back to Horham, 1st Lt Sasser requested permission to divert to Duxford to catch up with two pilot friends serving with the 78th Fighter Group, 1st Lt Martin H. Smith and 1st Lt John B. Putman Jr. After catching up in conversation 1st Lt Sasser approached Flying Control Officer 1st Lt Leo H. Wendeln for clearance for some local flying with his six crew plus personnel from Duxford.
Finally four of the crew from 42–102937, together with nine personnel from Duxford, climbed aboard for the flight. Lts Morton and Hendershot elected to remain on the ground.
The personnel from Duxford on-board 42–102937 that day were: 1st Lt Martin H. Smith Jr, 84th F/S; 1st Lt John B. Putman, 3rd F/S (both pilots of the 78th Fighter Group); S/Sgt Donald M. French, 84th Service Squadron; Sgt Ellsworth J. Seecz, 23rd Station Compliment Squadron; Corporal John F. Hamilton, 23rd Station Compliment Squadron; Tech 5 John D. Gorman, Transportation Section, 1671st Ordnance Company; Pfc Anthony C. Loguidica, Transportation Section 84th Service Squadron; Pvt Frank L. Wojicki, 23rd Station Compliment Squadron; and Pfc Wilbur K. Edwards, 84th Service Squadron.
At 14.28hrs the B-17 took to the summer skies and made a pass over the airfield West-to East turning South. At 14.45hrs the control tower was alerted to the sound of an aircraft approaching. 1st Lt Wendeln noticed the B-17 making a run in across the airfield towards the tower at very low height, the pilot pulling the aircraft up over the control tower and passing over No3 Hangar only to clip a beacon pole severing the outer section of the port wing. In seconds the B-17 was inverted crashing into the enlisted men’s barracks.
Nothing could be done for the men on board the aircraft together with Sgt Ernest Taylor of the 78th Fighter Group, 83rd Fighter Squadron who had been in the barracks at the time. Two other bystanders were injured. Casualties would have been much higher if the buildings had been fully occupied.
There is a greater in-depth report, this being a non-operational crash, from both the 95th Bomb Group and the 78th Fighter Group, although the official censored release to the families was appropriate, as more details would only heighten the pain for the grief-stricken families.
During 2013, Elizabeth was able to piece together more details from documents and letters found at her late mother’s home. Some research helped complete the picture of events of the 19th July 1944. This in in turn developed into the idea of the family donating the collection to the Red Feather Club Museum/95th BG Heritage Association at Horham.
On receipt of this valuable collection its display became the focus of one of the most tragic stories of the 95th BG during their time at Station 119 (May 1943 until May 1945). Elizabeth takes up the story after her and her husband Alex’s visit to England in late summer 2013.
Alex and I made a visit to London and were able to arrange a visit to both Cambridge and Horham through the 95th BG Heritage Association. After taking the train from King’s Cross to Cambridge we met Ray Howlett who I had been working with over the past months on James Sasser’s Army Air Force Service whilst in England. Our first place to visit in Cambridge was the American Cemetery at Madingley which was a solemn, poignant visit. On arriving at the “visitors’ centre”, Arthur Brookes, and a very nice English Gentleman said to me “Elizabeth, we have been waiting for you! The flowers that you ordered for Lt Sasser arrived just 2 minutes ago!” I was so surprised.
The flowers were yellow roses with the inscription that I had written;
“Jimmy: You are not forgotten. God bless your Crew and the Ready Freddie” Elizabeth.
We were driven in a “golf cart” and visited the chapel where “Taps” played from the chimes, it was very moving. The ceiling of the chapel is decorated in shimmering shades of blue mosaics of warplanes, both the Jewish Star of David and the Christian Cross are represented. A war map of Europe carved in Portland stone is located inside and on the exterior of the Chapel.
The massive front doors consist of teak wood and rustic bronze models of military and naval equipment. We drove past the long rectangular pond with beautiful lily pads, all surrounded by very large statues of American servicemen representing the Navy, Army, Army Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. Finally, Arthur drove Alex and me to Jimmy’s grave site where we placed the beautiful flowers together with American and English flags. In addition, a lovely tradition took place, Arthur had a bowl of sand from Omaha beach which he used to fill in the name and group, squadron and date carved in the gravestone in order to take clearer pictures. Arthur painstakingly cleaned all the edges to perfection. We were then respectfully asked to place our hands in the bowl of sand, and to appreciate the men who gave their lives so we could be free. It was almost a religious experience, we certainly felt the history and pain of D-Day almost 70 years later. Alex to my surprise was more moved than I. To end our visit, Arthur presented us with the two flags from the graveside which had remembered many men throughout the years. We said our final “goodbyes” to Arthur with the next part of our journey to Horham – about an hour from Cambridge.
On route to Horham we passed Gothic cathedrals, churches, a windmill and many other interesting buildings. The Red Feather Club consists of three Quonset (Nissen) huts and during the war was an NCO’s mess hall, bar, lounge and dance hall, when the war allowed. Outside is a marble monument in honour of all the men of the 95th Bomb Group who served at Station 119, Horham. There is also a replica Military Police guard room plus original brick bomb shelters for the airmen to take cover in the event of an air raid by the Luftwaffe.
The museum is very impressive, and Jimmy’s display is quite large. His diary and the excerpt from D-Day are the most prominent, along with the biography of his life. All the pictures and letters can be seen. His 21 missions are noted in detail, along with my mother’s newspaper articles covering the air war over Europe, which coincide with Jimmy’s missions. I also sent vintage European maps, a photo of Eisenhower and his statement to the soldiers just before the invasion of Normandy.
Here are some excerpts from the letters written by wives and the remaining aircrew of 42–102937 donated by Elizabeth. They point out the camaraderie and respect the crew had for their pilot.
S/Sgt William J. Bertrand (waist gunner): “I know how you must feel from losing such a great man as Lt Sasser was, to me your husband was the greatest man I ever knew. My heart and sympathy are with you. There will never be a pilot as good as your husband was”. Later in the letter he goes on to say: “I enjoyed the letters I have received from you I was reading them over to-night and Mrs. Sasser it hurts me when I read (take care of my Jimmie), I don’t know what to say, I’m just speechless”. He ends: “Please take care of yourself and remember me as one of Lt Sasser’s boys”.
Lt Floyd A. Hendershot (bombardier): “To us Jimmy was more than our pilot, deeper than just army friends, he was a leader we looked up to and respected his every judgement, he was a father, so to speak, to every one of us. I for one respected his judgement to such an extent that the fears of combat were almost nil knowing he was at the controls. He was my friend and a friend that never can be replaced”.
Other letters to James’s wife Fredrika from the High Command of the 95th BG, 8th Air Force plus Capt. George R. Myer, Protestant Chaplain of the 95th HQ together with wives of the other crew members lost in the crash, tell of their deepest sympathy and respect for the young pilot.
Our time at The Red Feather Club was limited as Ray suggested that we might like to see what else remained of the base. We drove a short way along the runway and we felt like we were taxiing down the runway in a B-17 as they had done 70 years before … we got goose bumps, what an experience! We moved on to the Church of St Mary’s in the village of Horham, which is situated opposite the pub “The Dragon” … a place that men from the base spent many hours off duty even though it was a known fact the guys thought the beer was warm and flat .
The day had ended with Ray taking us to Diss railway station, which is the same today as it was in the war years, buildings with wrought iron and wooden filigree accents,
In Jimmy’s diary he tells of a 48-hour pass for him and his crew with Diss being the station they would use to reach London. We did not manage a visit to Duxford that day, we felt enough sadness this day.
Our final farewells said, Ray presented me with a picture of “Ready Freddie” painted by his son Darren, who is an artist, in the exact colours, the nose art is there and perfectly shows mother in a blue dress and Uncle Sam’s hat, saluting and carrying a bomb! It is titled “Over Point Du Hoc, Normandy, June 6th 1944”.
During the year that followed Elizabeth was able to obtain more official documents and pictures of the accident, reports from the 7th Fighter Group – through the Imperial War Museum at Duxford and one of her contacts, Research and Information Officer Peter Murton. Other information came from the 95th Bomb Group records. The events of the 19th July were published in Aeroplane Magazine in August 2012 by Ian McLachlan recording times and personnel on the base that afternoon. The excerpt read:
Clearance was obtained from Flying Control Officer 1st Lt Leo H. Wendeln for some local flying. It has been stated that the B-17 approached the Control Tower at barely 10 feet, a picture that has been researched at Duxford shows “Ready Freddie” nearing the Control Tower just before the aircraft clipped the beacon tower.
Severing the bomber’s port wing outboard of Number One engine, together with the left tail plane, the now uncontrollable “Ready Freddie” with its occupants rolled over, flew inverted for 350yds over buildings and the A505 road.
Eyewitness 1st Lt William F. McCarthy remembered he was enjoying a baseball game with 84th FS personnel when he was startled by terrifying noise, he looked up to see a Flying Fortress upside down heading straight for the baseball pitch — it slammed into the ground and exploded into a fireball, engulfing one of the enlisted men’s barracks.
Sgt Ernest Taylor died in the barracks despite two attempts by Chaplain, Cpt William J. Zink to save the airman, when able Chaplain Zink entered the wreckage and gave the last rights to the victims, helping to extricate their bodies from the crashed bomber. He was awarded the Soldiers Medal for his bravery, the first 8th Air Force Chaplain to receive this award.
By late afternoon word of the tragic accident had got back to Horham, Sgt Larry Stevens, tail gunner with 2nd Lt George Dancison’s crew records in his book “It Only Takes One”:
“19th July 1944, my friend, one of the four crew members from Lt Sasser’s plane that stayed behind at Horham came to our Nissen hut and he was crying, I asked what happened and he told me he had lost some of his entire crew in an accident.”
He was of course referring to James Sasser’s aircraft “Ready Freddie”. By now it was also possible that Lt Morton and Lt Hendershot who had not taken the flight, so as to make way for eager personnel looking for a ride in a Flying Fortress, had returned to Horham grief- stricken at the loss of four of their crew.
With their pilot and co-pilot gone, the remaining six crew members were eventually assigned to new crews. One letter home to Fredrika Sasser from S/Sgt William B. Bertrand, waist gunner on “Ready Freddie” reads:
“Mrs Sasser, I was put on a crew as an engineer, I am all finished now and expected to go home soon. When I was flying with the new crew I felt lost, when I was in the cockpit and looked at my pilot to me I could only see James, Lt Sasser flying the ship. I know that he helped me finish my missions I always had the feeling he was up there with me and with that in mind I was sure of coming back, he made me come back Mrs. Sasser please believe that”.
During the days that followed an official investigation was carried out outlining the incident in full. The report censored 1st Lt Sasser as an example was appropriate, but could only enhance the pain for grief-stricken families. Lt Col David T. McKnight noted:
Report of Aircraft Accident:# … The pilot’s youthful exuberance cost 13 lives, all directives concerning warnings against unnecessarily low flying be reiterated to all flying personnel, and must also point out that violations of such directives will almost certainly go under the category of (Death) “not in the line of duty”
The aircraft’s fate reflects that of many fallen Fortresses that succumbed to causes beyond actual combat. Their stories are now woven into the history of the USAAF aviation heritage in East Anglia.
Just after our arrival back home I made contact, via the internet, with Nancy Myers, daughter of Protestant Chaplain, Capt George R. Myers, a great friend of James. It was in the office of Capt. Myers that James made the entries in his diary and wrote home to his wife Fredrika. Letters of condolence to Fredrika followed after the accident at Duxford from Chaplain Myers 70 years ago, which I have since forwarded to Nancy. Our exchange of correspondence has been a very moving experience for both of us.
In early September 2014, Alex and I took a second visit to Horham this time to take part in the 70th anniversary of the Glenn Miller Dance, which celebrated the 200th mission undertaken by the 95th BG. Although Glenn Miller made a personal appearance, it was only brief as he was touring other USAAF bases. Tragically Glenn Miller’s plane disappeared on a flight to France in late 1944.
Meeting with Ray and Carol at Diss station, staying at the Auberge Bed and Breakfast, whose main building is over 600 years old, and just a few miles from Horham. On the Friday the first evening, we attended a welcome reception at the Red Feather Club. This year saw two veterans’ return –Bob Fay, ball turret gunner, 334th BS, and Herb Wilkov, navigator with the 3361h BS, together with 30 American visitors connected with the 95th BG. The evening started with Grace Hammesfahr, longtime patron and volunteer, and the McKnight family unveiling the new building which is now known as “The McKnight Building” after Col. David T. McKnight. It is to house the administrative, fireproof archive room, computer and conference rooms. We were very proud as some of the money used to construct this building was donated by Alex on our previous visit in 2013 with thanks echoed by James Mutton. On this visit I brought over from my Mother’s collection of 103 letters, for safe keeping at the Red Feather Club, which her husband James had written her from Horham during his time there in 1944. It seemed only right to keep the story of 1st Lt James D. Sasser and his wife Fredrika together and safe for future generations to read and understand. With a lovely sit-down dinner the guests at our table were Alex and I, Ray and Carol and John and Kate Kirkum, who had been involved with the 95th BG Heritage Association for many years. Kate, whose uncle was lost on D-Day flying a Hawker Typhoon with the RAF, wrote the lovely poem “The Old Airfield”. Following dinner there were speeches by James Mutton, Chairman of the 95th Heritage Association and later a speech by Lt Col Michael Parks, a serving pilot with the USAF at Lakenheath flying F-16E Eagle fighters.
After the speeches the evening continued with friends and families getting to know each other. The atmosphere of the whole evening set the warmth of the days that were to follow. Saturday saw our visit to Duxford and to the main reason behind this quest to find out about the accident on 19th July 1944 that killed 14 young men and put closure on my story. On entering the airfield which is now the home of the Imperial War Museum we walked along the hardstand until we reached the control tower. As we looked out over the airfield Ray told us of the route James took the aircraft. I was lost in trying to imagine those last moments of James s aircraft as it thundered towards the control tower with those young men enjoying what was then a ride to remember. We then turned to face the No 3 hanger which Ready Freddie was about to hit. The point where the flashing beacon light once stood is still visible. The image in my head was difficult to understand – from that point on the aircraft was lost.
The only part of this tragedy left to witness was the actual impact site but this area, which is on the far side of the A505 main highway, is not open to the public. The day had been sad enough. I could not bear to see the “slab of faceless concrete”. You really can’t go back – a time for reflecting.
In one of the restored hangars, an artefact and prize exhibit for me, at least, was Rudolph Hess’s crashed plane, a Messerschmitt BF11OD. Hess defected to England in 1941. It is reported his plane ran out of fuel over Scotland and he parachuted breaking both his legs. He was hospitalized for many weeks before spending the rest of the war in the Tower of London before his trial and sentence to life in prison at the Nuremburg trials. All that remains of the aircraft is a battery, an engine and a twisted section of the fuselage which still bears the ID markings.
We continued to view the museum and came across a glass memorial wall which has etched on it every aircraft lost in the European Theatre of War – from every group and every squadron. B-l 7G 42–102937 (Ready Freddie) is included with aircraft of the 95th BG. We ended our visit at the American Museum, where we saw a collection of USAAF, later USAF and USN, aircraft from the 1930s to the present day including a B-17 Flying Fortress “Mary Alice”.
Back at the Auberge restaurant the four of us had a meal. As the evening was to be the Glenn Miller dance, 40s dress and USAAF uniforms added to the atmosphere and we arrived at the Red Feather Club to find the party well under way with dancing to the Skyliner band and songs from the 1940s sung by Hanna. At times the band took a break and AV8 DJ Andy kept the music flowing.
The base performed a variety show consisting of songs and skits, the most impressive were the 30 or so young men singing loudly and without music, “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder”, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house! We were treated to a version of Who’s on First by Abbot and Costello by two of the English volunteers; the next act was an Egyptian Sand dance by two enlisted men; followed by the Andrew Sisters; and then a vintage 1940s lounge singer performed.
During the evening James Mutton thanked Alex for his donation and me for my mother’s letters plus the original set of Glenn Miller records which I had found on sale in America.
The evening ended with farewells and a short drive back to the Auberge. Sunday saw us leaving for France and the Normandy beaches. After breakfast Ray and Carol took us to Diss station where we said our goodbyes. For all of us it had been a memorable weekend and I think now I can put closure on Jimmy’s time with the 95th BG at Horham, plus understand the accident on that July afternoon in 1944. Ray and I have agreed to keep a look out for information which will help expand this story.
This is the story of the journey to understand the dreadful accident that happened that July afternoon in 1944 to an experienced pilot who had been on 21 missions over Nazi occupied Europe. The crew had formed a strong and special trust in each other and were able to look out for each other on missions that scared even the toughest flyers. The letters sent by this crew, both before and after the crash at Duxford, cry out forgiveness for 1st Lt James D. Sasser’s grave mistake which cost so many lives. He and his co-pilot broke one of the golden rules by flying the aircraft lower than regulation permitted, but I believe that some of the decisions made that day by the officers at Duxford were wrong. I say this because joy-riding was not permitted and perhaps this accident could have been avoided, if a flight directive had been put in place by ground controllers and officers of the watch. Why this was not so, we will never know.
I know this has been a very personal journey for Elizabeth, one which I have been proud and privileged to be part of. Over the past two years the story of 1st Lt Sasser has given some closure to Elizabeth and her family. I feel I have had the privilege to know a man, his family and his wife through the memorabilia and letters kept by Elizabeth’s mother, Fredrika, plus the members of the crew, Chaplain Myers and officers and personnel at Horham. For the first time I can understand the pain and anguish of all the men of B-17G 42–102937 “Ready Freddie”, the fears their families had to live with day-after-day, not knowing what news the next morning might bring. Those who survived can count themselves as the lucky ones, for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice must always be remembered for their gift to us, FREEDOM. As many 95th Bomb Group veterans have said “those guys who didn’t come home are the real heroes”. One can only say that 1st Lt James D. Sasser and 1st Lt Victor L. Mintz, who despite this tragedy took part in the destruction of the mighty Nazi war machine, are among those heroes.
Now this story, the documents, letters and pictures are displayed and kept at the Red Feather Club Museum, Horham, Suffolk, England for future generations to read and understand the story of just one crew among the thousands that helped to bring peace to Europe and the World.
Thank you to:
Elizabeth Aal has gone to the trouble of re-typing James’ diary excerpts.
The Old Airfield
Strolling through the fields of green
Where once a throng of life has been
A feeling so evoked in me
Of sadness amidst tranquility
For beneath where now grows golden corn
Bonds as strong as steel were born
Laughter, tears and stories shared
Amongst the comrades of the air
And as on concrete strips I tread
The backbone from whence missions led
I can almost hear the roar
As engines to the heavens soar
“We count them out, we count them in”
Through the ever ascending din
This, by those who watched and cared
For men whose lives might not be spared
Day after day, night after night
Into another enduring flight
The hardcore now so cracked and worn
Each tell a story for those who mourn
Yet now looking up to the clear night sky
Over the airfield to stars on high
I feel sure that in this patchwork of land
Our faithful friends stretch out their hands
This land which now yields sheaves of gold
Will forever breathe a life of gold
Never forget — They came, they went
And for you and me their lives were spent.
By Kate Kirkum (May 2004)
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